Evidence mounts against VLTs; Full social costs are emerging

So great has been the impact of video lottery terminals in Alberta that it is easy to forget how new a phenomenon they are in the province. In just six years they have become the colossus of Alberta gambling, producing 60 per cent of all gambling revenues.

Because they are so new, all the evidence on what these gambling machines are doing to our society is not yet in. Many of us suspect that VLTs are causing great hardship, and we're touched by the individual tragedies that get reported in the newspaper. But the full social costs have been hard to measure.

One such measure appeared this week, however, with the news that three in 10 people who sought help from the new Credit Counselling Service of Alberta last year cited VLT gambling as a reason for their credit troubles.

The service didn't set out to track VLT problems when it opened its doors last May. It started keeping track because staff kept hearing about VLTs from clients coming to them seeking help with major debt problems.

It stands to reason. VLTs sucked $460 million out of Albertans last year -- and not all Albertans, just the small minority who plugged coins into them. That money had to come from somewhere, be it the food budget or the rent money or the Visa payment.

VLT addicts who hit the debt wall cause hardship for themselves, their children and the people to whom they owe money. They may lose both house and job, and may need years of help to dig themselves out of debt.

The finding of the counselling services confirms the worst fears about the damage that VLT addiction is causing. So also does the small study released last week by the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, which found that two-thirds of VLT addicts said they didn't have a gambling problem until they tried VLTs.

They are a reminder of how blindly the provincial government went into this VLT venture, and how great is the need for comprehensive research on what it's doing to our province.

The government's only concession to the mounting evidence has been to agree to test a slowing down of the rate of play on VLT machines. That's hardly an adequate response, any more than is the argument of the bar owners who benefit from VLTs that the machines are an "entertainment choice" like any other.

VLTs are not just another entertainment choice. Each new piece of evidence, such as the data from Credit Counselling Services, confirms that. The case for restricting these machines to casino sites, or for running them out of town, gets ever stronger.